Tennessee's Jeremy Pruitt pushing the right buttons, but deserves patience as he builds

The day after Alabama stunned Georgia 26-23 in overtime in the College Football Playoff National Championship, Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt was off to his new full-time job as the coach of rival Tennessee. For the previous month, Pruitt had been double-dipping as the Volunteers' coach while preparing Alabama for the College Football Playoff.

So far, his time on Rocky Top has a distinct Tide flavor to it (no, not the pods that people have inexplicably been eating).

As colleague Barton Simmons noted earlier this month, the Vols have moved up 40 spots in the 2018 team recruiting rankings since Pruitt was announced as the man to replace Butch Jones, and have plenty of room available left to skyrocket even more before old-school National Signing Day on Feb. 7.

Forty. With time and room to spare.

That's not just a meteoric rise, that's a galactic shift in momentum for a program that, prior to the announcement of his hiring, had become the punchline to virtually every bad college football joke thanks to the the ditch Jones left the program in and the botched attempt to hire Greg Schiano.

"From cornerbacks Olaijah Griffin and Isaac Taylor-Stuart out of California to Alabama commit Quay Walker and Auburn commit Coynis Miller, the Vols are heavy on action this time of year," Simmons wrote. "While those are some of the bigger name targets, Louisiana cornerback Eddie Smith, Alabama defensive lineman Malik Langham, Washington, D.C. end Caleb Okechukwu are among the numerous other prospects that are in play."

From the looks of Pruitt's work so far, the whirlwind might spin Tennessee -- which went 0-8 in the SEC for the first time ever in 2017 -- back into the SEC East discussion faster than #VolTwitter can pounce on a hater.

Not to be the wet blanket, but temper the enthusiasm just a little bit.

With six four-star players already signed and another committed with room for more is great, as is a staff that is as southern as pulled pork. But Pruitt is still a first-time coach who's going to make rookie coach mistakes. He'll forget to call for the punt team, mismanage the clock, unnecessarily use timeouts and do all of the other things that first-timers might plan for, but struggle with when it comes down to execution. 

It even happened with Kirby Smart at Georgia in his first year in 2016, and he was with Nick Saban at Alabama and the NFL's Miami Dolphins for a full decade. One year later, those two were squaring off for all the marbles.

That's not to say that Pruitt will follow in Smart's footsteps. The absence of a proven quarterback, departure of stud running back John Kelly and installation of a new strength and conditioning program will likely make this a more prolonged rebuild. That's why it's imperative that Pruitt get at least a two-year honeymoon on Rocky Top.

The first half might be a bit rocky, but that's just the marital equivalent of having one too many at the swim up bar when you arrive in paradise. It happens. It doesn't mean the relationship is destined for failure. It just means it hasn't started off as smoothly as it'll be down the road.

The SEC East is wide open. At least, outside of Athens.

Somebody has to step up and at least be relevant outside of the Bulldogs, and the Volunteers got a taste of what that was like in 2015 and 2016 before it fell apart in epic fashion. Pruitt deserves the right to not only build the program back, but do it his way, with his players, with his plan for sustained success.

For that to happen, he is going to have to fail a few times. That's OK, especially if it happens in 2018. Because the start of his full-time Volunteer career coupled with his success under Saban and former Georgia coach Mark Richt suggests he knows what it takes to do what Vol fans crave.

Build a winner.

College Football Writer

Barrett Sallee has been a member of the sports media in various aspects since 2001. He is currently a college football writer for CBS Sports, analyst for CBS Sports HQ and host for the SiriusXM college... Full Bio

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